By Samantha Masunaga
A year and a half after President Trump first blasted the cost of the presidential planes as “out of control,” aerospace giant Boeing Co. has officially landed the $3.9-billion contract for the next generation of Air Force One jumbo jets.
The contract, announced by the U.S. Air Force on Tuesday, will include detailed design, modification, testing and certification of the two 747-8 jumbo jets.
The announcement comes five months after the White House said it reached an “informal deal” with Chicago-based Boeing to pay $3.9 billion for the aircraft. At that time, Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Trump’s negotiations saved taxpayers more than $1.4 billion, a claim that was repeated in a statement Wednesday from the White House.
But an aviation analyst has said the new Air Force One planes were always expected to cost about $4 billion. And Defense Department budget estimates for fiscal year 2019 project that the Air Force One program will cost about $3.95 billion through fiscal year 2023.
Trump first criticized the price of the program via Twitter in December 2016, saying that the planes would cost “more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg then met with Trump and told reporters that they would cost less than $4 billion.
The planes are already built. They were originally ordered in 2013 by a now-defunct Russian airline that never took ownership of the commercial aircraft, as reported by trade publication Defense One. Boeing will add special features, such as defense systems and structural modifications designed to provide extra protection to those on board.
The new planes will replace the modified 747-200 jets that have been in service since President George H.W. Bush’s administration in 1990. Over their years of service, the planes have been upgraded with safety, self-defense and avionics improvements. But as the aging commercial fleet of 747-200s leaves service, the supply of replacement parts has dwindled, according to an Air Force official.
There are newer two-engine commercial airliners than the 747, but a four-engine plane is required to meet the electrical power production, safety and aircraft size and weight needs of Air Force One, the official said.
The existing Air Force One planes are “near the end of their operational life,” said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s more cost-effective in the long run to buy a new plane.”
A prior contract award notice for the new planes indicates that modifications will include a mission communications system, electrical power upgrades, a medical facility and “autonomous ground operations capabilities.”
The special equipment allows the president to direct military forces and even launch nuclear weapons from the plane during crucial moments, Harrison said.
“The purpose of this plane is not just to move the president around,” he said. “In a crisis, it’s a mobile command platform for the president.”
On Tuesday, Trump told CBS News that cosmetic changes are also in store for the new Air Force One planes.
“I said, ‘I wonder if we should use the same baby blue colors,’” he said. “Air Force One is going to be incredible, it’s going to be the top of the line, the top in the world, and it’s going to be red, white and blue.”
Air Force One’s distinctive, light blue exterior color stretches back to the Kennedy administration, when then-First Lady Jackie Kennedy worked out a new color scheme and interior design for the presidential aircraft in consultation with an industrial designer, said Ken Walsh, White House and political analyst at U.S. News & World Report and author of “Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and their Planes.”
Kennedy gravitated toward the robin’s egg blue color because “she felt it was understated, but memorable, and President Kennedy agreed,” he said.
Since then, presidents have maintained that light blue exterior and the plane has become a recognizable American icon, in the vein of the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore.
“The existing look of Air Force One has come to symbolize the United States,” Walsh said. “It’s the most recognized plane in the world. [Trump] changing this already all-American design strikes a lot of people as excessive.”
Work on the new planes will be done in San Antonio and is expected to be finished by December 2024, according to the contract award listing on the Defense Department’s website.